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Antiques & Collectibles Canadiana

Celebrating Canada

Decorating with History in a Contemporary Home

by (author) Peter E. Baker

foreword by John A. Fleming

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jun 2017
Canadiana, Furniture, Reference
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    May 2017
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jun 2017
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2017
    List Price

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A visual journey showcasing how history can make a house a home, a reminder of the strength of character and ingenuity entrenched in Canada’s history.

Inspired by the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation — the same year recognizing 375 years of settlement in Montreal — Quebec antiques professional Peter E. Baker brings life to Canadian history and demonstrates how antiques and folk art can successfully be incorporated into a contemporary lifestyle, providing a home with a unique identity.

Drawing from a single collection, the author selects and showcases objects spanning three centuries of Canadian history, from the early days of French settlement to the creative boom of late-20th-century folk artists. Amply illustrated, and written in a conversational, easy-to-read style, this is not a traditional technical study of antiques representing a specific type or region. Celebrating Canada showcases the story and the artistic merits of each object.

About the authors

Peter E. Baker poursuit une carrière d’antiquaire de plus de 40 ans, au Québec. Il a participé aux salons les plus prestigieux du Canada et des États-Unis. Il est membre de longue date de l’Association des Antiquaires du Canada et a agi comme évaluateur des pièces de Canadiana à l’émission Antiques Roadshow de la BBC et Canadian Antiques Roadshow. Il partage sa vie avec sa femme Susan à Elgin, au Québec.


Peter E. Baker's profile page

John Fleming is Professor in the Department of French and the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Les meubles peints du Canada fran—ais/The Painted Furniture of French Canada as well as numerous articles on the decorative arts in Canada.

John A. Fleming's profile page

Excerpt: Celebrating Canada: Decorating with History in a Contemporary Home (by (author) Peter E. Baker; foreword by John A. Fleming)


This is a book about living with “soul”, about giving a contemporary home a unique identity in a time when immediate fulfillment and peer acceptance pervade social media and where history is frequently viewed as something best left to academics and the stuffy living rooms of elderly relatives. Inspired by the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 2017 — the same year recognizing 375 years of settlement in Montreal — the goal is to renew awareness towards the material history that surrounds us no matter where we may live in Canada. In these pages we show how antiques and folk art can work with a modern lifestyle, imparting an ambience impossible to achieve with the furniture and decorative accessories available at the nearest big box store.
Not a “period” restoration where objects are selected purely on a narrowly defined moment in time, the featured collection of Joan and Derek Burney represents objects spanning three centuries of Canadian history, from the early days of French settlement to the inspired creativity of late 20th century folk artists. With illustrated items ranging from examples that could be easily found on the market today to highly sought museum quality pieces, it is hoped that both seasoned collectors and those new to the world of antiques and folk art will be challenged to explore new avenues in making the home an even more interesting and dynamic living space.
Each profiled piece reminds us of the strength of character and ingenuity that built this country. From the imaginative output of the rural folk artist who literally whittled away his time during the long cold winters, to the classic forms created by academically trained cabinet makers, Canada has produced a wealth of artistic treasures that all too often have earned more respect and appreciation from our neighbours to the south. Several significant pieces featured have been repatriated from the United States including the French Régime Armchair featured on page 42, the Seminary Parrot on page 120 and the Three-Tier Chandelier on pages 14 and 122.
One of my early encounters with Joan Burney was in my booth at the Bonaventure Antique Show in Montreal where she came in with another friend/collector. We soon bonded over Madilla Smith, the portrait of a young girl featured on page 151. As we discussed the merits of the painting and other items presented for sale I realized that this person was not just decorating, she and her husband Derek were chasing history, looking for the Canadian story behind the piece. Who made it? When? Where? Why?
The portrait of Madilla was of interest not only because of the innocent charm captured by the artist, but also because it came with some clues and an oral provenance of being found in an old Ontario homestead. Who was Madilla? Who was E.S., Painter? Could this be a portrait by an unknown early 19th century Canadian artist? These were all questions I had asked myself, however, in pre-Internet days it was too timeconsuming for me to easily investigate. But with Joan’s purchase of Madilla the real research began and so did an enduring friendship of respect and a shared passion for unearthing the Canadian story and playing a part in preserving our collective past.
Despite our close proximity, Canadian antiques are often very distinct from their American counterparts. Partially due to geography and remote settlement, partially due to the relative isolation of groups based on language, religion, or trade, and partially due to a country where immigration wasn’t ramped up until the mid 19th century, Canadian furniture styles were slow to evolve.
In Quebec, with protection of French culture and institutions provided by the British in the post conquest period, the simplistic linear forms of Louis XIII style continued well into the early 20th century. Similarly in Ontario and the Maritime provinces the simpler English influences of Hepplewhite and Sheraton prevailed for decades over the more elaborate Chippendale and Queen Anne styles found in abundance south of the border. These latter styles appear sparingly in limited areas of Canada like Ontario’s Niagara region and other areas populated by United Empire Loyalists following the American Revolution. The same is true in western Canada where centuries-old ethnic furniture traditions continued well into the 1930s even with the advent of ready-made catalogue furniture available in the metropolitan centres to the east. These enduring styles and construction techniques sometimes make accurate dating both an art and a science; however, there are always telltale clues to assist in pinpointing a time period.
The objects discussed in the following pages have been collected over the past four decades and primarily represent eastern Canada settlement, although a few pieces exhibit a western heritage. It is a collection that continues to evolve to this day with careful “pruning” by Joan who, like all true collectors, has culled and replaced lesser objects or those of questionable provenance with superior examples as time and budgets allowed.
Material has been found privately or at auction but most objects were acquired from trusted antique dealers both in Canada and the United States. Significant value — not always monetary — has been added to the collection by researching provenance whenever possible, revealing new background information and history for several objects. Research took Joan and Derek on adventurous forays off the beaten path where they encountered a cross section of Canadians along the way. From visiting the former Quebec village of Saint Romuald to identify a convent building, to a trip to St. Stephen, New Brunswick, to track down the origins of a 19th century trade sign, they discovered that two passions can co-exist and prove greater as a whole: a heartfelt appreciation of our material past combined with a deep-rooted national pride.
This book is not a traditional technical study of antiques representing a specific genre or region along with dimensions and material analysis, rather it is organized as a virtual house tour. Chapters are organized room by room with most objects photographed in their physical space rather than a compilation of isolated photos in a studio setting. Fish in the bathroom and Napoleon in the dining room — a subtle sense of humour, history, and romance pervades the home.
Each featured object acts as a catalyst in triggering a discussion of historical context, while also examining its individual merits and how it is displayed or utilized to enhance the room setting. Some of the object descriptions are based on pure fact while others are personal assumptions based on research, informed opinions and my own 40-plus years in the antiques industry. In certain cases the story is left unfinished with suppositions that require further research, commentary or specific expertise. I have attempted to describe what I see in the object, but others may see something completely different — it is my sincere hope to stimulate more thought and debate.
There are far more scholarly sources on Canadiana that contain significant facts and technical details about stylistic origins, materials, and construction techniques that I have not attempted to duplicate and highly recommend to anyone with the curiosity to learn more about our Canadian “roots”. Like many collectors my antique “schooling” began with The Early Furniture of French Canada authored by Jean Palardy in 1963 — incredibly, despite changing tastes and new information, this is still the one book that should anchor any collection of Canadiana today. I am humbly indebted to Mr. Palardy and to all the other authors who dared put Canadiana on the radar of the art world including pioneers like Marius Barbeau, Elizabeth Collard, Russell Harper, John Langdon, Henry and Barbara Dobson, John Porter, George MacLaren, Donald Webster, Philip Shackleton, Gerald Stevens, Michael Bird, Howard Pain, Bernie Gates, Blake McKendry, Michel Lessard, Jean Simard, John Fleming, and Michael Rowan. And this is just the tip of the iceberg! All of the above can be found in the bibliography.
The items or artists discussed in these pages have been selected because they have a Canadian story to tell — they are not just objects to decorate a home, they are part of our collective history. These stories include objects crafted by First Nations people, furniture from the French Régime period in Quebec and from the early British settlement period in the Maritimes, a “rebellion box” linked to the 1837 political uprising in Upper Canada, and early sculpture and folk art with profiles of certain folk artists. Some astute readers will notice objects that have appeared in other publications — these are presented again not only due to their inherent beauty or form, but also because diligent research has yielded dividends in terms of new information that creates a deeper back story to the object.
Like many of my fellow dealers, I am often asked to explain what makes something great. If it is a question related to best form, then the answer can be logically deduced, but if we are speaking about a one-of-a-kind object, then it is a much more difficult question to answer. Sometimes it is a connection to history; sometimes simply age and rarity; sometimes it is the beauty of form, decoration, or precision construction. Great objects always stand out regardless of the viewer’s background, taste or education. But why?
There are collectors with years of academic study who don’t “get” folk art or see the beauty of a vernacular variation on a traditional furniture form; there are others with little education or financial means but who have an innate understanding of art that may surpass that of trained professionals. Sometimes we don’t know why we like something — we just do: the subtlety of a carved detail, the natural ergonomics of a tool, the power of the most simply executed design, the use of colour and texture. All these features draw us in, working together to broaden our thinking, to explore new boundaries, and to help us better understand our Canadian heritage.
Antiques are more than simple pieces of decor filling a particular space; they are objects with a story, a history, a part of this country’s beginnings.
For casual readers wondering what it’s all about, I pose a simple question: rather than buying the new blue-green vase from the big retailer, why not purchase an 18th century wine bottle or a 19th century cobalt blue apothecary bottle — both available for under $200, both with beautiful form and both with a story to tell? The same goes for the new tripod table advertised in the latest decor magazine, painted white and built of pressed wood — why not buy its predecessor, an 18th century solid mahogany tea table with assuredly better form and style, often as affordable as the new one and with a lot more to say? And in our environmentally conscious world, we could argue that antiques are totally recyclable, saving natural resources and pollutants related to modern manufacturing processes.
Many of the pieces featured in this book are similar to objects readily available and attainable in the marketplace today. Instead of an eighteenth-century diamond point armoire, you might have a simple pine chest, a Mission style sideboard or a mid-century modern cabinet. Our hope with this book is to stimulate ideas as to how antiques, folk art, and collectibles can personalize a home and how a bit of Canadian history can impart a new ambience to your home with stories of love, struggle, passion, and pride.
If you are fascinated by antiques but don’t think you can afford it — you’re wrong. There are antiques and collectibles in every budget range, and all have a story to tell. Look and learn, listen to your friends and professionals, visit museums, shops, and shows, see where your interests lie and find your own unique taste. Antique dealers and industry professionals also have a role to play in recommending appropriate sources where new collectors can expand their knowledge base. Start small, buying the best you can afford within the confines of budgets and space.

Editorial Reviews

Whether you’re a committed collector of Canadiana, a seeker new to the passion and looking to learn, or someone wanting to understand how to achieve ‘the look’ in a condo or house, you’ll not be disappointed.

Canadian Antiques and Vintage

Echoes Joan Burney’s philosophy, which is to take an uncluttered approach and focus on pieces that make for ease of living.

Ottawa Citizen

Beautifully presented.

Maine Antique Digest

Amply and beautifully illustrated, deftly and informatively written in a conversational, easy-to-read style … impressively showcases the story and the artistic merits of each object.

Wisconsin Bookwatch

Other titles by Peter E. Baker

Other titles by John A. Fleming